How Did These Stamps Become Canada’s First Officials?

Or: A Nice Little Puzzle Question for Philatelic Students

Fraud, Theft and Errors

This is a long story if all the details are included but here the story is abbreviated. However, it will still include implications of fraud or theft, errors in communication and delays in procurement.

It all starts with an audit of a federal government departmental office in rural Canada in 1937. During the audit it was discovered that postage stamp purchases for the preceding three years were significantly higher than in year four. When apprised of this, the only explanation offered by senior department management was that the employee who was responsible for stamp purchases in the preceding three years had retired and there was a new employee responsible for stamp purchases:

“The above statements would indicate that charges were made for postage in the three years ended March 31st, 1936 in excess of departmental requirements and they also imply that moneys were improperly retained by the officer charged with that service.”

The difference in postage purchases was about $1,200, a significant amount in 1936; and today (2024) is the equivalent of over just over $27,000.

All stamps are Five Hole perforated position 1, except 5 cent brown airmail (Mercury) which is position 4.

New Orders from the Treasury Board

The report of the auditors to the Auditor General on June 25, 1937 recommended that for better control of postage expenditures:

“The supply of special stamps for Government mail or the perforation or overprinting of the letters ‘O.H.M.S.’ on the regular stamps.”

The Treasury Board, the most powerful committee of Cabinet in the Federal Government, accepted the report and on March 28, 1939, the Treasury Board issued order TB#170926B that directed from July 1st, 1939:

1. All stamps for Government use are to be purchased at Ottawa by the Department concerned and distributed as required to their various Branches in and out of the city.

3. The Post Office Department is to make arrangements required to provide that all stamps sold to Government Departments are perforated with the letters ‘OHMS’.

The Ministry of Defence was exempted from using the new postage until March 31st, 1942.

New Regulations from The Post Office Department

Following the Treasury Board decision, the Post Office was advised and soon developed new regulations which were entitled: “O.H.M.S.” Postage Stamps for Official Use. These regulations were issued May 22, 1939, and covered rules for using official stamps, how to order, report, etc.

The term Official is used extensively in the regulations and likely led to the philatelic use of “Officials”:

  • “…postage stamps to be used on Official mailings…”
  • “…requisition for initial supply of official Postage Stamps not later than June 15th, 1939…”
  • “Only the official Postage Stamps as supplied by the Department, bearing the perforated letters “O.H.M.S” are to be used on official mailings, and such stamps are not to be used for any other purposes whatsoever.”

The Post Office applied the term “Officials” to these perforated stamps, a designation they had not used prior. There are five-hole perfins using OHMS that were used solely by the Department of Finance and stamps perforated MD and used by the Ministry of Defense. However, these were never designated “Officials” by the Post Office and were only used for those departments. Never before had the Post Office under from the Treasury Board designate stamps “Officials”

Yes, the Department of Finance stamps were also perforated O.H.M.S. and by the same perforating machine and as such could be considered precursors or forerunners of these First Officials in Canada.

A new perforating machine

On May 30th, 1939, H. E. Atwater asked for authority to order a manually operated perforator from Cummins Perforator Co. at a cost of $131.00. The machine produced “four-hole” perforations (four holes in the H and M uprights). He notes in his letter of requisition that it will take three weeks to secure the machine, noting the urgency as the perforated stamps are to be used after July 1st, 1939. As well, Government departments had been ordered to produce requisitions for the new Official Stamps by June 15th, 1939.

A temporary solution was found:

“…this department had no perforating machine available, and as it was impossible to procure one from the manufacturers in time for the 1st of July, a machine known to be in the hands of the Finance Department was borrowed and used for the first supplies of stamps that were sent out as postal issues.”

A. S. Deaville in a letter to W. G. Gordon, April 16, 1947

The First Official Stamps by the Numbers

The Post Office started perforating stamps with the old “five-hole” Cummins machine borrowed from the Department of Finance in June of 1939 as a stop gap measure until the new Cummins four-hole could arrive and be put to work.

Departments used a requisition form and it shows the stamps listed below. It should be noted that the Post Office never specified specific stamps, simply the denomination. A letter by L. J. Fuchs in 1951 was, however, more specific and he confirmed the stamps listed here as the ones perforated and, as such, are Canada’s First Officials.

A “Guesstimate” of stamps Five-Hole perforated in June 1939

Scott Catalogue NumberDescriptionQuantity Estimated
O8 2311 Cent Green KGVI4,000
O8 2322 Cent Brown KGVI5,500
O8 2333 Cent Carmine KGVI12,000
08 2344 Cent Yellow KGVI600
08 2355 Cent Blue KGVI3,000
08 2368 Cent Orange KGVI600
08 24110 Cent Carmine Memorial Chamber1,500
08 24213 Cent Deep Blue Halifax Harbour600
08 24320 Cent Red Brown Fort Garry600
08 22650 Cent Dull Violet Victoria Parliament200
$1 no evidence any were perforated
08 E710 Cent Special Delivery100
08 C25 Cent Olive Brown Mercury Air Mail50
08 C66 Cent Steamer and Seaplane Air Mail50
Total Stamps perforated in June 1939:29,900
This “guesstimate” is based on a survey conducted by the Post Office in March and “part of April”, 1937.

A survey of Government Departments from March 1st, to April 2, 1937 indicated that the departments purchased 102,000 stamps or about 20,000 a week.

Bearing in mind that the new four-hole perforator would have been delivered as of June 21st, and considering that it could produce substantially more stamps a day than the five-hole perforator, it may be safe to assume that the borrowed five-hole perforator was used to only produce about 1 -2 weeks’ worth of stamps or approximately 20,000 to 40, 000 for this “guessestimate”. The percentage breakdown by denomination was informed by the 1937 survey. Yes, the five-hole machine could have produced more stamps, but why when the likely demand was not present.

Covers displaying these stamps are quite scarce, due to the limited number of stamps produced plus the initial reaction of many collectors that stamps with holes in them were damaged and not worthy of collecting.

“First Day Cover” for First Officials? Two perforated stamps. The one cent is a Five hole perforation, position 1, while the 3 cent is a four hole in position 1. Postmarked July 1st, 1939 in Chester, Nova Scotia. Kindly contributed by Jim Graham.
A 1940 Cover from “Indian Office, Duncan, BC”, with 3 cent Five Hole, a later example. From the collection of the author.


These 13 stamps are the First Official Stamps in Canada as defined by the Post Office Department in their regulations. The numbers, however, are not as precise and are estimates. Perhaps it is best said by A. S. Deaville, superintendent Postage Stamp Division, who on April 16, 1947, in replying to a letter to W. C. Gordon, Regional Vice Director of the C.P.S. (now the Royal Philatelic Society of Canada) wrote:

“It seems unfortunate that someone with some sense of philatelic values was not consulted when this system was inaugurated. The whole project was carried out by officials who had no thought of anything but financial and accounting questions. However, they have presented philatelic students with a nice little question which may puzzle them for many years to come.”

by David Biltek


Archives of Canada File: 24-1-2 to 24-8
Statistics Canada:
Interviews and advice: Jon Johnson and Gary Tomasson

Scroll to Top